Helen of Troy
Helen of Troy
Homer's Iliad, Ovid's Metamorphoses, other tales of the Trojan War
Daughter of Zeus and Leda
In Greek mythology , Helen of Troy was the most beautiful woman in the world. A daughter of the god Zeus (pronounced ZOOS), she is best known for the part she played in causing the Trojan War, a story told by Homer in the Iliad and the Odyssey. Some myths say that Helen's mother was Leda, the wife of King Tyndareus (pronounced tin-DAIR-ee-uhs) of Sparta. Others name Nemesis (pronounced NEM-uh-sis), the goddess of revenge, as her mother. Helen had a sister, Clytemnestra (pronounced klye-tem-NES-truh), who later became the wife of King Agamemnon (pronounced ag-uh-MEM-non) of Mycenae (pronounced mye-SEE-nee). She also had twin brothers named Castor and Pollux (pronounced PAHL-uhks).
Stories claiming Leda as Helen's mother tell how Zeus disguised himself as a swan and raped the Spartan queen. Leda then produced two eggs. From one came Helen and her brother Pollux. Clytemnestra and Castor emerged from the other. Other versions of the myth say that Zeus seduced Nemesis, and she laid the two eggs. A shepherd discovered them and gave them to Queen Leda, who tended the eggs until they hatched and raised the children as her own. In some variations of this legend, Helen and Pollux were the children of Zeus, but Clytemnestra and Castor were actually the children of Tyndareus.
When Helen was only twelve years old, the Greek hero Theseus (pronounced THEE-see-uhs) kidnapped her and planned to make her his wife. He took her to Attica (pronounced AT-i-kuh) in Greece and locked her away under the care of his mother. Helen's brothers Castor and Pollux rescued her while Theseus was away and brought her back to Sparta. According to some stories, before Helen left Attica, she had given birth to a daughter named Iphigenia (pronounced if-uh-juh-NEYE-uh).
Some time after Helen returned to Sparta, King Tyndareus decided that it was time for her to marry. Suitors came from all over Greece, hoping to win the famous beauty. Many were powerful leaders. Tyndareus worried that choosing one suitor might anger the others, who could cause trouble for his kingdom.
Among those seeking to marry Helen was Odysseus (pronounced oh-DIS-ee-uhs), the king of Ithaca (ITH-uh-kuh). Odysseus advised Tyndareus to have all the suitors take an oath to accept Helen's choice and promise to support that person whenever the need should arise. The suitors agreed, and Helen chose Menelaus (pronounced men-uh-LAY-uhs), a prince of Mycenae, to be her husband. Helen's sister Clytemnestra was already married to Menelaus's older brother, Agamemnon.
For a while, Helen and Menelaus lived happily together. They had a daughter and son, and Menelaus eventually became the king of Sparta. But their life together came to a sudden end.
Paris, a prince of Troy, traveled to Sparta on the advice of the goddess Aphrodite (pronounced af-ro-DYE-tee). She had promised him the most beautiful woman in the world after he proclaimed her the “fairest” goddess. When Paris saw Helen, he knew that Aphrodite had kept her promise. While Menelaus was away in Crete, Paris took Helen back to Troy. Some stories say Helen went willingly, seduced by Paris's charms. Others claim that Paris kidnapped her and took her by force.
When Menelaus returned home and discovered Helen gone, he called on the leaders of Greece, who had sworn to support him if necessary. The Greeks organized a great expedition and set sail for Troy. Their arrival at Troy marked the beginning of the Trojan War. During the war, Helen's sympathies were divided. At times, she helped the Trojans by pointing out Greek leaders. At other times, however, she sympathized with the Greeks and did not betray them when opportunities to do so arose.
Helen had a number of children by Paris, but none survived infancy. Paris died in the Trojan War, and Helen married his brother Deiphobus (pronounced dee-IF-oh-buhs). After the Greeks won the war, she was reunited with Menelaus, and she helped him kill Deiphobus. Then Helen and Menelaus set sail for Sparta.
The couple arrived in Sparta after a journey of several years. Some stories say that the gods, angry at the trouble Helen had caused, sent storms to drive their ships off course to Egypt and other lands bordering the Mediterranean Sea. When they finally arrived in Sparta, the couple lived happily, although by some accounts, Menelaus remained suspicious of Helen's feelings and loyalty.
Many stories say that Helen remained in Sparta until her death. But others say that she went to the island of Rhodes after Menelaus died, perhaps driven from Sparta by their son Nicostratus (pronounced nye-KOS-truh-tuhs). At first she was given refuge on Rhodes by Polyxo (pronounced puh-LIKS-oh), the widow of Tlepolemus (pronounced tlay-POL-ee-muhs), one of the Greek leaders who had died in the Trojan War. Later, however, legend has it that Polyxo had Helen hanged to avenge the death of her husband.
Helen of Troy in Context
The abduction of Helen by Paris reflects the ancient idea of women as trophies that can be taken from an enemy. Victorious soldiers commonly took the women of their fallen enemies as slaves; in the myth, Paris actually provokes a war by taking Helen with him while Menelaus is away. Versions of the story differ on whether or not Helen went with Paris willingly, but this is irrelevant to Menelaus's reaction: he behaves as if Paris has stolen property from him, an attitude typical of the time period.
Helen also reflects Greek ideas about the importance of physical beauty. According to the ancient Greeks, outer beauty was a reflection of the mind and spirit. Therefore, beauty was considered to be a sign of intelligence, health, and a pure heart. Although the Greeks focused on physical beauty, it is because they did not consider beauty to be merely “skin deep.”
Although Helen was the daughter of Zeus, she is a mortal woman in the myth of the fall of Troy. Some scholars suggest that Helen was once a very ancient goddess associated with trees and birds, but whose status was reduced to a mere mortal when the Greeks stopped worshipping her.
Key Themes and Symbols
In Greek mythology, Helen is said to represent the ultimate in human beauty. Aphrodite herself identifies Helen as the most beautiful woman in the world. Helen is also seen as a victim of the advances of men; she is abducted against her will at least once, and is plagued by suitors when her father announces she is looking for a husband. Helen may also symbolize wavering loyalty, as seen when she assists both sides during the Trojan War.
Helen of Troy in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life
Helen and stories about her inspired many ancient writers, including the Greek playwright Euripides and the Roman poets Virgil, Ovid, and Seneca. She also served as inspiration for later authors, including Italian poet Dante Alighieri and English playwrights William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe. It was Marlowe who famously wrote that Helen's was “the face which launched a thousand ships.” Helen has also appeared in numerous modern re-tellings of the Trojan War, and was even the subject of her own television miniseries in 2003.
Read, Write, Think, Discuss
Nobody's Princess (2007) by Esther Friesner tells the story of the Trojan War from Helen's point of view. In this version, Helen is a fiercely independent young woman who cares more about her skills with a sword than her appearance. The book offers a new take on an age-old tale, and Friesner even includes a section on ancient Greek history and the original texts her tale draws upon.